An outlawed alliance of extremist outfits, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, says it will observe a one-month cease-fire to allow peace talks with the government to resume.
Spokesman Shahidullah Shahid announced Saturday the senior leadership of the militant group had instructed all of its subgroups to abide the cease-fire. The militant organization cited a “positive” government response to its proposals for ending the deadlock in the dialogue process.
The announcement nearly coincided with reports that gunmen in northwest Pakistan on Saturday killed at least 11 security officers escorting a team of health workers who came to vaccinate children against polio.
The attack was carried out in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, near the border with Afghanistan.
It is unclear who was behind the attack.
The government suspended previous negotiation attempts when insurgents in the northwest said they had killed 23 Pakistani troops.
Government forces have pounded suspected militant hideouts in the northwest with airstrikes in recent days, and there had been speculation in Pakistan that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was on the verge of ordering a full-scale military offensive against militant bases.
The Pakistani Taliban has wanted to overthrow the government and establish its own hard-line form of Islam across the country. Militant attacks have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis.
Government peace negotiators welcomed Saturday's declaration of a cease-fire as a “breakthrough development," and the announcement seems to have injected new life into efforts Sharif has undertaken to bring an end to years of militant violence in Pakistan.
A government delegation held preliminary talks with TTP intermediaries last month but continued militant attacks against security forces and civilians provoked Sharif to suspend the peace process. He linked its resumption to a declaration of unconditional cease-fire by the militants.
Former parliamentarian Sami ul-Haq, a Taliban peace negotiator, says the call for a cease-fire offers a new opportunity for both sides to re-engage in peace talks that could lead to an end to bloodshed in the country.
Both sides “need to avail this God-sent opportunity to build mutual confidence and create a conducive atmosphere for the peace dialogue,” he said.
However, critics of the peace process such as Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., are warning the government against engaging in talks with an anti-state group.
“The TTP represents an ideological group which has an idea which it wants to impose on the country by force through any means because it is so sacred, in their eyes, that they will resort to anything," said Qazi. [The government is] surrendering [its] fundamental obligation to protect the people by elevating this group to almost equal status ... and that of course sends extremely negative signals within the country and outside.”
The TTP is considered a loose alliance of dozens of militant groups with varying agendas and critics are unsure whether the organization can enforce the so-called cease-fire. Critics cited Saturday’s back-to-back explosions in the northwestern tribal district that targeted the polio vaccination team. The attacks killed more than a dozen people, mostly policemen escorting the anti-polio workers.
Islamist militants are blamed for deadly attacks on polio teams, alleging the campaign against the crippling disease is being used as a tool for spying and the vaccine makes boys sterile. The violence has undermined anti-polio efforts in Pakistan, one of the few remaining countries where the virus persists.